Interview #108: Thornton, CO Mayor Heidi Williams (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

Even though Thornton gets rid of its council meeting videos (boo), there was still a lot of ground to cover with two-term Mayor Heidi Williams. She discussed difficult public hearings, titular protocol, and her frequent public commenters.

Q: Your Honor, the city of Thornton video streams its council meetings–which is good! And they are even in high definition with remarkable sound quality. So that is even better. The problem is: you only have videos posted for the last year. And I was told that Thornton takes down and destroys videos older than one year! Now look, we all made questionable fashion choices in the mid 2010s. Short shorts. Mom jeans. White people dreadlocks. So if that’s what this is about, I’m empathetic. But Mayor, when it comes to those videos, how do you defend what I am calling the Great Thornton Purge?

A: Well, I have to be honest: this is the first time I’ve heard of that. I did not realize that we took those videos down and destroyed them. So I will be getting to the bottom of that. I really thought that you could go back and watch videos a long time back.

Q: I am glad you are on the case. I take it from your answer that you don’t often watch videos of the council meetings after they happen. Is that accurate?

A: Oftentimes, I don’t want to actually relive it. The times that I’ve gone back and watched a portion of a meeting is because I thought maybe I said something really stupid. And generally I find that I either did or it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I think it’s a little narcissistic–again, I’m already there. But having said that, I understand how a lot of people aren’t there. And constituents are like, “oh, we watch you on channel 8 or we watch you online!” And I’m like, “you do?!” It’s always surprising to me that people do.

Q: Well, it’s all the more frustrating to me that I can only watch 52 weeks’ worth of meetings! I noticed that you don’t often miss meetings, which is admirable. But whenever you are gone and the mayor pro tem is in charge, everyone calls the mayor pro tem “Your Honor.” That title is reserved for you! Have you ever told your mayors pro tem to get back in their place–or do you want me to do that for you right now?

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Thornton, CO Mayor Heidi Williams

A: In Thornton, all the elected officials are considered “The Honorable.” So actually, everybody that serves on council with me is “Your Honor.” I only missed two meetings the first six years. But the city manager called the mayor pro tem at the time “mayor” and somebody texted me right away. Apparently, that’s what they used to do. They don’t do that anymore, but they will say “Your Honor.”

Q: On March 20, there was an extended stay hotel proposed in Thornton. This council meeting was to approve it or reject it. Hearing people in the public hearing talk about “this type” of hotel and how “no college educated” people would stay there, and talking about how transient families would send their kids to school and “use our resources,” I felt uncomfortable with how people were resorting to elitist arguments when they really didn’t have to. Did that cross your mind at the time?

A: Sure, it’s always tough when a developer wants to put something in that people don’t want–the NIMBY effect. I’ve heard probably worse than that. That was a difficult hearing.

Q: You also had crowded meetings about marijuana stores, and I’m sure people were making arguments about destroying the city or letting in the “wrong type” of people or threatening children. Does it concern you when people make it seem that with one vote, your council will do all of those things to the city?

A: Yeah, and the longer I’m the mayor, I’ve just seen so much of that. That would probably be one of my most frustrating things. Everybody’s like, “not in my backyard.” As a society, we have to start being more thoughtful and less hateful. And try to talk to our council members about what we want and don’t want, but in a way that’s not demeaning or hateful. I’ve just seen in the last couple of years a lot more hateful stuff being said. Not tons, but a lot more than I did.


Follow Mayor Heidi Williams on Twitter: @mayorheidi

Interview #82: Syracuse, NY Councilor Khalid Bey (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

Khalid Bey is dissatisfied in many ways with how the Syracuse Common Council operates. It is not transparent to the public and even he gets little notice about what transpires in the council chamber. We discussed the parts that are getting better, but also the parts that aren’t going to change anytime soon.

Q: Councilor, I want to read you this tweet:

How accurate is that observation?

A: I think unfortunately it may be pretty accurate. One of the concerns I’ve expressed in the past relative to council meetings is there is more politics involved and not as much good government. I always make the statement that politics disturbs good government. I’ve also made an effort to push for a charter review to reduce some of the ambiguity. There’s just some things that I think need to be made black and white so that the people understand the discussion that is going on in the chambers.

Q: If the Syracuse Common Council meetings were a board game, which would they be?

A. Monopoly

B. Jenga

C. Hungry, Hungry Hippos

A: I would probably say Jenga.

Q: So you have to be really careful because at some point it could all come tumbling down?

A: That’s right!

Q: Not only does Syracuse not video stream its meetings, but I did not see your meeting minutes online either. When I called the clerk’s office, they told me those documents are only available in their office in a physical book of council minutes. Why has the common council allowed this situation to continue?

A: Well, it’s interesting because I’d be surprised if most of the councilors even know that. Because I didn’t know that. I think oftentimes what you’re dealing with is certainly the city being a little behind the times. And we’re talking from a technological perspective. But also, established custom gets mistaken for rule. And sometimes these established customs have to be brought to the attention of the council and others for them to change. So I appreciate you bringing that to my attention because I will tell you: I did not know that.

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Syracuse, NY Councilor Khalid Bey

Q: How often are you surprised about what you’re asked to vote on in a council meeting?

A: We get the agenda book less than 24 hours before we’re obligated to come and discuss it intelligently. This is an unfair advantage to the council. This council takes a beating from the media and the public because it often appears ill-equipped–which it most certainly is–having to speak intelligently on something that it just received less than 24 hours. In comparison to somebody from the administration who may have had it for weeks and months.

Q: Do you think the news coverage of the common council has to be thorough precisely because there is so little official documentation of what happens?

A: I think so. Certainly one of the things that people talk about is when they go live stream, the behavior of some of the councilors will change. That is true. That is an unforutnate thing because I need them to see the behavior they don’t know about.

Q: What behavior do you wish or hope will go away once there are cameras in the meetings?

A: I’ll speak for me. When I push legislation, they respond sometimes as if they’re doing me a favor. So I always try to make the case to them, listen: if you have a distaste for me, fine. But it’s not about me. You’re doing work for the people. And sometimes the responses sound as if you’re doing favors for me. If you watch them, that’s exactly what it looks like.


Follow Councilor Khalid Bey on Twitter: @khalidbey

Interview #72: Hamilton, ON Councilor Matthew Green (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

Even though he’s only in his first term, Matthew Green has very sophisticated views on the mechanics of city council meetings. We explore his strong pro-video streaming beliefs and the plague of long-windedness.

Q: You sometimes Facebook Live stream your speeches from the dais. You talk a fair amount at council meetings, so how do you decide what moments are worthy of Facebook Live?

A: When I started, the old-school model was councilors would give inside information to mainstream media in exchange for favorable coverage. I found that in not doing that, my positions at council were miscommunicated or misrepresented. I remember getting upset about it. I had a media expert, she said to me, “don’t get mad at the media. Become the media.”

Q: Hmm.

A: Facebook is a hyper local medium and so I choose Facebook to communicate to my residents.

Q: Have you ever watched a Hamilton council meeting online through the city’s website?

A: It is horrible.

Q: Right?!

A: It is terrible. An incident happened in council chambers and I wanted to open an investigation. In doing so, I looked at our live stream and realized our live stream did not cover major sections of the whole chamber. So I had to [freedom of information request] my own city to get the security footage to provide me with the incident I believed I saw. We’re very fortunate [to have] an independent journalist. He runs a live stream called “The Public Record.”

Q: Yeah.

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Hamilton, ON Councilor Matthew Green

A: He has built a reputation for himself in capturing the circus that is often city hall: the inappropriate comments, the workplace toxicity, or some of the decorum issues. He creates a prism in that people are aware that he’s there and sometimes, I think, it raises the decorum and the level of discourse because they know they’re being recorded. When there’s no media present, we sometimes say the zaniest things.

Q: It’s curious you mention decorum because on everything I’ve seen, the Hamilton city council behaves relatively well. Again, maybe it’s because he’s there recording, but what are some of the issues you’re referencing?

A: One of the governance challenges we have, in my opinion, is that we don’t have a strong chair role. We rotate the chair, which allows councilors from month to month to use that position as a bully pulpit. It provides a situation where chairs will allow councilors to speak at length or speak in very harsh and personal terms to staff, which should be shut down.

Q: Are you ever worried when you become the chair that people will have similar reservations about the job you’re doing?

A: I’m actually comfortable chairing meetings. We’re not THAT bad. It’s really a conversation around time. We’ll have four or five of us who monopolize all of the time. In the technology of our microphones, they’re supposed to shut down after five minutes.

Q: Mmmhmm.

A: The idea is that if I’m the chair, I don’t want to shut you down at five minutes. So I let you just go! I do that with the understanding that sooner or later you’re going to be the chair and I’m going to have an issue that I want to go on. It’s a bit of nudge-nudge, wink-wink that I think is problematic. But we’re all guilty of it.


Follow Councilor Matthew Green on Twitter: @MGreenWard3 

Interview #59: Myrtle Beach, SC Councilman Randal Wallace (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

Randal Wallace has been a councilman since 2001–and he’s running for a fifth term as we speak! Normally, I get livid when a city like Myrtle Beach does not video stream its meetings. But I calmed down when he told me he would like to see that happen. Plus, he shared a nice thing his mother does after he has a difficult council meeting.

Q: I went on the city’s website looking to watch the Myrtle Beach council meetings and I became kind of angry when I saw that you do NOT put your meeting videos online.

A: We’re televised and you can go to our public information officer and ask for a copy of the meeting. It’s a little old-school. We hired two new assistant public information folks. They’ve been putting the minutes online, so I think we’re moving toward the twenty-first century. We just got a new Facebook page and Twitter presence and Instagram. So that would be a very good next step, to live stream the meetings. I would certainly be supportive of it.

Q: You are running for reelection, as are two other council members and the mayor. If you came across in these meetings as the voice of reason, the consensus-builder, the guy who treats everyone well–I would think you’d want voters to know that. And if someone is behaving abominably, you’d want voters to know that too. Do you feel the same way?

A: Yeah. The seven members that are currently on council, we’ve gone out of our way to disagree agreeably. We’ve had the same upper management staff for, like, 29 years. So you’re seeing a lot of change happening now and we’re moving out of the status quo.

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Myrtle Beach, SC Councilman Randal Wallace

Q: Your meetings happen at 2 p.m. during the workday. Between that and the lack of streaming, it seems like Myrtle Beach is making it difficult to find out what’s happening in those meetings.

A: Well actually, when I was first elected, the televised meeting was at 7 o’clock on Tuesdays. We moved the 7 p.m. meeting to 2 o’clock. The majority of council–of which I was not one–felt like we were keeping staff there. It had been routine that we had meetings that ran sometimes till midnight, 1 o’clock in the morning, and it would make great television. But the staff was having to be there from 8:30 in the morning till we finished. Then they had to come back.

Q: Mmhmm.

A: I’m more of a night person. So I understood about people wanting to come later on–they might be a little freer. But I was in the minority.

Q: In 2013, I saw that you tweeted this:

Does your mom still do that?

A: She’s had a few distractions, but when I first was on [council], if I got entangled with one of the council members or someone came in really mad at me, as soon as we went off TV my phone would ring. It would be her: “don’t you let him talk to you like that!” So it was good to have a mom in your corner!

Q: That’s sweet of her!

A: Over the years she’s gotten a little thicker skin about it. [Laughs] She still can get a little feisty when she perceives I’m getting treated bad.


Follow Councilman Randal Wallace on Twitter: @randal_wallace 

Interview #56: Cork, IE Lord Mayor Tony Fitzgerald (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

Cork is a very old city and by my cursory count, Tony Fitzgerald may well be the six-hundredth-or-so mayor to lead the council! He has been a councilor since 2004 and I was curious to know where he stood on putting cameras in the council chamber. He has an open mind and wants to do his research, but also says that the rules are a firm “no” on the issue.

Q: I noticed that the Cork City Council does not live stream its meetings. In fact, in 2014 the council voted against live streaming by a margin of 22-6. Which side were you on?

A: My understanding was that we didn’t have the proper procedures. I mean, it’s important to make the meetings interesting to the public and it’s important to keep the focus on the issues of the city rather than, you know, making political speeches. So I would have an open mind to that. If I do recall it now, it wasn’t really very well thought out.

Q: I’ve said this before on the program: if people can’t see the entire meeting, all they know is the sensational stuff that gets tweeted out or the protest videos on YouTube. That also skews people’s perceptions of your council meetings.

A: Yes, yes. I think as well that in 2014, budgets were quite limited. I think spending money to video record council meetings…that money would have been much wiser spent in housing or roads. You have to be prudent in terms of what is the best way to spend public money.

Q: I do have a suggestion for you. Cork has, I think, 125,000 people. In an American city of that size, you might have five to seven city council members. Cork has 31. And I would argue that a small council where you can see what they’re doing is MORE democratic than a large council where you cannot. So what do you think of finding the money in that way?

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Cork, IE Lord Mayor Tony Fitzgerald

A: Well, at the moment there is a report due on the representation of the number of elected members to the city council. All of that is up for review at the moment. But I would think that it’s good to have a strong interface with the public. I think it’s good to have as many voices as possible. It gives you wide political perspective.

Q: Do you have a smart phone, sir?

A: I do.

Q: Would you commit to doing a Facebook Live video of council meetings on your phone–for free–before you leave office?

A: That’s something I haven’t considered. It’s not as easy for me to say that today. I’m more of a practical representative in doing my research. That would have to be considered by the party leaders, the party whips, in conjunction with the administration. I mean, we have to stick to the rules of the council. But I have a very open mind on a lot of issues.

Q: Well, you have 31 councilors. You can have 31 potential Facebook Live videos, each streaming out to their hundreds or thousands of followers and you could cover a pretty good size of Cork that way.

A: Yeah, yeah. But we have to look at the practicalities of that too. But that’s something that could be considered.

Q: Okay. Well, keep me posted.


Follow Lord Mayor Tony Fitzgerald on Twitter: @Tfitzgeraldcork

Interview #45: City of Sydney, NSW Councilor Christine Forster (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

Folks, this is a first: we have an Australian city councilor–and a good one at that! Christine Forster is a Liberal Party councilor who also ran for Lord Mayor (which is Australian for “mayor”) last year. We got outraged at what I was seeing–or not seeing–in her council meetings.

Q: Where I am, it is Sunday. But where you are, it is Monday. So you are IN THE FUTURE! I think it would be fun if you told the audience what I am going to say next. I’ll put my fingers in my ears.

A: Well I’m pretty sure you’re going to ask me how the City of Sydney council operates.

Q: [Taking fingers out of ears] Okay, great. I want to start by talking about your dog. I know you’re a big animal lover and–wait a minute. I bet that’s EXACTLY what you thought I’d say. Nice try! Let’s talk instead about your council meetings. I could not find a scrap of video footage anywhere. What’s going on? Did a dingo eat your cameras?

A: [Laughs] It wasn’t a dingo and it wasn’t even my pug, Audrey Pugburn! It’s a sad fact that unfortunately there is no video or audio record because our Lord Mayor–she’s been in charge of the show since 2004–resolutely refuses to broadcast or televise our meetings. It has been something I’ve been pushing for several years now. But the Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, is intransigent.

Q: In July 2014, the council decides to do the live streaming. That passes on a 5-4 vote. What happened next?

A: It passed on a 5-4 vote because the Lord Mayor’s numbers were down. Somebody was away on sick leave. The motion was rescinded at the next meeting by the Lord Mayor when she had the numbers again.

Q: How long have the debates been on this and what was the tone?

A: There was no debate, really. As soon as the new council was [sworn in for 2016], I spoke very robustly in favor of it. And the Lord Mayor and her team simply voted it down.

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City of Sydney, NSW Councilor Christine Forster

Q: This is frustrating to me. Clearly it’s frustrating to you because you’re living through it. Are regular people as angry about this as you are?

A: People want this. There are councils around the world that have been doing this since the 1980s. It’s beyond frustrating, frankly. I have no problem with anyone photographing or recording anything I say or do. I’m happy to open myself to that level of scrutiny.

Q: I did contact the Lord Mayor’s office and asked for an answer about why she refuses to allow the rest of us to see what’s happening. I received no response. Quite frankly, I am outraged that Clover Moore thinks the people’s business should be done on HER terms. However, being fair here, can you think of any time that you or your fellow councilors used a meeting to grandstand, take a shot at the mayor, or create a distraction?

A: Absolutely not. This is not about us trying to score political points. This is an administration that will countenance no variation, no opposition, that is entirely about control.

Q: Couldn’t you hold up your cell phone and Facebook Live stream it?

A: It might well end up that somebody does that. It won’t be me!


Follow Councilor Christine Forster on Twitter: @resourcefultype